Monday, March 20, 2006

Natomas Flood Protection, Less Than Thought? Part Four

This story from Friday’s Bee reminds us of the danger of not dealing with problems until they threaten to swamp you (or flood you might be the appropriate term here).

Sacramento’s public leadership has known for years that Sacramento did not have adequate protection from major flooding, yet have done nothing significant about it.

It does appear from the article that at least one public leader wants to know why, and isn’t taking shrugs for an answer.

However, it still looks as if the folks in Natomas might have to keep on waiting.

Here is an excerpt.

Long wait to bolster Natomas flood defenses
By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg -- Bee Staff WriterPublished 2:15 am PST Friday, March 17, 2006

People who live in Sacramento's Natomas area will have to wait at least until the end of 2009 and perhaps years longer to get the minimum level of flood safety they were told they had in 1998.

Restoring 100-year protection from storms with a 1 percent chance of striking any year will cost somewhere between $140 million and $200 million, the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency board was told Thursday afternoon.

Only the first $38 million of that money is expected to be in hand when work starts next year, said John Bassett, SAFCA's director of engineering. There are many hopes - but no firm plans - for where the rest of the money might come from.

It was the starkest outline yet of just how far away the fast-growing Natomas region is from truly having the level of flood safety that it still retains on paper.

Today, Federal Emergency Management Agency maps show the Natomas basin would stay dry in a 100-year flood, protected by levees that hold back the waters of the Sacramento and American rivers and two canals.

In reality, mile after mile of those levees are too low and too vulnerable to seepage, both under and through them, to actually meet that standard, according to Bassett's analysis and a draft study that SAFCA released Thursday.

If Natomas loses that federal designation, flood insurance rates would shoot up and insurance would become mandatory for people with federally insured mortgages. In addition, new homes could be required to be raised above the potential floodwaters - 15 feet or higher in some places.

With such massive work needed, it's imperative for FEMA to be told that Natomas levees won't withstand a 100-year flood, said Rodney Mayer, acting division chief of flood management at the state Department of Water Resources.

"There's no choice," he said.

With FEMA not likely to move immediately, the question becomes whether local officials will continue to allow people to move into a clearly imperiled area and how strongly residents will be warned of the dangers.

Before the report came out, most Sacramento City Council members said they were not inclined to halt new construction in Natomas or didn't have enough information to make the decision.
With Sacramento facing the greatest flood risk of any major city in the United States, Natomas' plight underscores just how hard it can be to protect deep floodplains from high water.

SAFCA had hoped by now to have virtually all 100-year issues behind it as it marched toward a longer-term goal to protect the community from a 200-year flood, the kind spawned by major storms with a half-percent chance of striking any year.

The new study had been aimed largely at defining the needs, costs and time frame for reaching that goal. But it also included a look at whether the area really did have 100-year protection, in light of evolving understanding of the dangers posed by seepage.

The conclusion released Thursday: It will take $302 million to get to 200-year protection for Natomas, tentatively by 2012.

Up to two-thirds of that money and most of the time, stretching into 2011, likely will be taken up with the remedial work to meet 100-year levee standards, Bassett said after the SAFCA hearing. He had told directors that an all-out crash program could hit the 100-year target by the end of 2009.

The frustration was palpable.

"This is not the only river in the United States that protects itself with levees," said Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters, who sits on the SAFCA board. She pressed Executive Director Stein Buer on past repairs, saying, "I'm not with you yet on why it wasn't fixed correctly the first time."